Stuff Around the House

One of the nice things about a career in sound design is that everyday listening is your job. Stopping to take in the sound of a passing car, a rusty hinge, or some birdsong is all part of building a vocabulary. Once you open your ears, you’ll start to find a myriad of things in your everyday life which will double as fantastic sound effects. Here, I’ve pulled some of my favorites from around my apartment building.

The building is old, circa 1920. It has been upgraded over the years (although the elevator permit expired in 2005) with some modern amenities. The windows, unfortunately, are old and cheap and if you’d like to hear their sounds, you can do so here. The other great things about the building are its garage door, accordion-style elevator, and the ronky wooden floors.

First up, the elevator.

Accordion Elevator by dsteinwedel

The gate is the prize here and comes in handily from time to time. Besides working out for Accordion Gates, it can double as a ronky gear or winch and has a fantastic metal latch.
Elevator Latch

The squeaky floors & garage door were especially hard to record as those areas of the building are susceptible to massive amounts of traffic noise. I’ve found over the years that 3:30 - 4:30/5 AM tend to be the quietest in terms of human movement in populated areas. As such, these were recorded in the early hours of the morning (on a holiday, no less, to make the chances of contamination as low as possible).

The floors are inside my apartment and don’t feel too loud during the day. The normal recordings actual feel better to me as rope stress than wood ronks. However, they start to take on an ominous quality when you pitch them down (the back half of the clip is played at 25% speed).

Floor Ronks by dsteinwedel

The garage door is a fantastic yet specific sound. The motor severely limits its usage but I love the character of the door as it opens and how it changes over time. Towards the back half of the cue, the door really starts to complain.

Garage Door by dsteinwedel

In the end, the things surrounding you make can make the best effects. It’s not always necessary to travel or find the most exotic things to make interesting sounds. They might be right under your nose.

Recording Geek Notes: Zoom H2 @ 24/96k.


Onboard Bicycle

A few years back, I worked on a commercial for the USPS which featured Lance Armstrong cycling all over the place. For that spot, I got to record a bike race, spend a few hours in the field with a bike to record movement and bys, and bring a bike onto a Foley stage and let the artist wring what he could from the machine. However, I never had a chance to explore making onboard recordings for that spot. The idea has been rattling around in the back of my head ever since. When I hopped on my bike a few weeks ago it was immediately apparent that a major service and tuneup were needed. The gears were rough and cranky, the chain had become dry, and the whole thing squeaked and groaned as I pedaled. In other words, it rode like shit but sounded fantastic!

Onboard recordings are not my specialty and my kit is primitive. Mounting a zeppelin to the bike is impractical due to the potential speed of a bicycle. A zepp, even fully fuzzied, cannot handle much more than 15mph. My zeppelin is also large and would be unwieldy to mount with tape. For an onboard recording where size and weight are vital, I like to use lavaliers.
Stuffing a can full of foam and burying the mic inside can effectively turn an omni lav into a directional mic. (That’s not to say it rejects any signals from the side, but the can/foam muffles a lot of high end.)

The cans are mounted to the bike with a good amount of foam between the two and a whole lot of duct tape. The points of interest were the front and rear gears, so I mounted the cans on the frame pointing towards those objects. The cables were then carefully routed up the frame and the recorder gets worn strapped directly to my back.

The biggest problem with my setup is rumble from the frame transferring to the can/mic mount. This was alleviated a bit by padding more foam around the can and between the can/bike. As I aim to perfect this setup its obvious some type of shock-mount needs to be designed. Because of the noise transfer, these recordings required severe processing to bring the life out of them. Below is a side by side comparison of the original, unprocessed recording and the heavily effected version.

Bicycle Before And After by dsteinwedel

(The MP3ification for the web actually makes the low end sound less bad than it actually was.) Waves C4 was a real champ at bringing this recording back from the brink. Here are some other samples at various speeds and gear ratios.

Bicycle Samples by dsteinwedel

And finally, some pitch shifting and minor tweaking turns the recording into something else entirely.

Bicycle Pitch Shifted And Tweaked by dsteinwedel

I am aiming to get the rig and mount working a tad better. Also, the bike sounds much better (more stressed) when riding hills, and these recordings were all on a track. Look for another segment in the future for round two of onboard bicycle action!

Gearslut notes: Recorded in Dual Mono using 2 Sony ECM-44B Lavaliers->Fostex FR2.

MUNI Lightrail

San Francisco has a bevy of transportation systems and all have their own unique sound. Off the top of my head are gas powered buses, electric buses, a lightrail system, the cable car system, the F-Market train, BART, and a few AC Transit buses coming into town. Each has its own unique aural signature. Below I have a few recordings made on the light rail system, both inside the underground stations and on the above ground tracks.

MUNI Lightrail Blog by dsteinwedel

The first section comes from Montgomery Station, in the heart of downtown. Recording in the stations is a bit tough due to constant PA announcements. (Walla is
not much of a problem as people have a deathly fear of speaking when using public transit.) However, if you explore a little bit to the very end of the platform, you’ll find utility platforms that are far enough from the PA speakers to get some clean recordings. Venturing into sections like this is can be a little risky. The utility platforms in the MUNI stations aren’t marked as non-public, but from the way the station is designed it’s clear that they are meant to be for employees only. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The train makes a smooth, ghostly sound when traveling in the underground section of the system. The trains can be heard from almost a full station away if the environment is quiet and you listen intently. I’ve used these sounds as background elements in a few games by throwing them through a delay or echo with a touch of feedback and washing the whole thing through reverb. If you want the sound to be indistinguishable, the track clacks need to be cut out first.

The second half the cue is from above ground. While these trains are smooth on a straight, even, underground rail, they are anything but when traveling around corners or on uneven pavement. This cue comes from the corner of Church and Duboce,
a heavily traveled intersection by light rail, buses, bikers, and some cars. However, it’s a decent place to try and capture due to the frequency of the trains (2 lines run through it), shelter from the wind, and the relative lack of cars. Also, since the trains completely envelop the intersection when crossing, it’s perfectly safe to cross with the train to perform tracking shots.

I used the clacking bit of the recording just yesterday as a sweetening element for a group of tanks. I needed something heavy, clunking, and metallic to go along with the chorus of treads and squeaks. This filled the hole nicely.


A few weeks ago, my fiance and I took a short camping trip into the backcountry of the East Bay. We visited Black Diamond Mines, which is out in Antioch. While it was a bit hot, the landscape is beautiful and affords some recording opportunities. Being the avid recordist, I packed my gear in for the night.
Black Diamond Mines view from above the valley.
The extra 6 or 7 pounds sucks on a steep hill in 95 degree heat, but getting a chance to be out in the middle of nowhere and never have to worry about vehicle traffic is Nirvana.

Unfortunately, Antioch is up the delta and the whole place is pretty windy. The wind was light enough so as to not cause mic pops through my blimp but just strong enough for the blimp to be the cause of the wind noise. That’s not usually a problem, unless you burnt your windjammer up in a little fire escape and have yet to replace it. D’oh.

I spent a lot of time recording wholly unusable things because of that noise and you’ll hear what I’m talking about interspersed in some of the effects below (especially the gate). I ended up with two pretty cool sets of effects after all was said and done. First was the rustiest old gate I’ve ever found and a next was a night of crickets in an open field.

Rusty Gate by dsteinwedel

The rusty gate.
This one speaks for itself. It whines, it moans, it ronks and bangs. Someday when I have the chance and a good wind forecast I’m going back to get a set that’s free and clear of that damn wind.

Our campsite was next to a large, open field in the bottom of a long valley. The hardest part about recording the crickets was deciding which direction to point the mic. The chorus of insects was absolutely beautiful in all directions. At points there are also peeps in the recordings. I’m not sure what kind of animal made them although my gut says some relative of a prairie dog.

Night Crickets by dsteinwedel

At 1:42 in you’ll hear a selection of the recording pitched down at about 40% of the original speed. Below is the sun rising across the lovely field in which they live.Cricket field

Recording geek notes: Neumann 191 -> Fostex FR2